Ready Player Whatever in a Young-Adult VR Dystopia
Opal believes her smarts will save her.
A Stanford-bound senior and adept coder at an elite Palo Alto boarding school for science and technology, she creates click-attracting immersive worlds. Her coding team hopes its virtual WAVE world will will win a million-dollar contest and score a meeting with WAVE founder and billionaire Howie Mendelsohn.
When friend Shane hacks in to WAVE and Opal discovers that players’ biometric scans show that their online comments and their true feelings differ dramatically, they suddenly find their angle. And when front woman Kara gets sick the night before the next round, Opal volunteers as tribute.
She stumbles at first. Hundreds of avatars disappear the second they see it’s not Kara virtually hosting them. But when Opal starts revealing the disconnect between how audience members post and how they really feel, avatars flood their room. Cue Girl Gone Viral.
Arvin Ahmadi sets his novel in the near future. The next-level technology he includes portends exciting possibilities but also raises ethical questions. WAVE collections all its biometric data, including brain waves and heart rate, by users’ consent. Just click the box and agree to the fine print. Chips embedded in students’ clothes keep track of their location on campus, but they also automatically open doors and curate news content for individual users as they pass by television screens.
And Ahmadi’s imaginary future is still near enough that plenty of today’s challenges exist. His book’s title comes from a “LiveTag” hashtag Shane posts to attract viewers on Opal’s first broadcast: “I thought (it) was kind of cheesy–more Lifetime special than LiveTag. But Shane said it would be algorithmically effective. Must be the ‘girl’ part. That word’s been a crowd pleaser for decades.” And one of the WAVE bigwigs abruptly ends a meeting with Opal at a coffeehouse and randomly hands his trash to a girl with brown skin: “‘I don’t work here,’ she says in an annoyed tone.”
Ultimately, “Viral” is about how much of herself Opal is willing to sacrifice to win. Can she go from being the brains behind their VR channel to the media-feeding machine that keeps it on top?
And that would be enough. Unfortunately, “Viral” also casts a key part of Opal’s motivation as discovering the truth about her father’s disappearance. Her father worked with Mendelsohn, the last person who saw Opal’s dad before he vanished.
“Howie Mendelsohn took my dad away from me during his last months. Maybe he didn’t take his life, but he took his time,” Opal thinks early on, recalling how Mendelsohn and her father were working around the clock on a new project just before her father’s disappearance. “Howie’s the one person who can help decode the great mystery of my life.”
So it’s a bummer when Ahmadi resolves this plot thread in far less depth than Opal’s budding romance with longtime friend Moro or the growing political movement of the anti-technology Luds party.
Even so, Girl Gone Viral is well worth the read, especially for anyone interested in balancing the allure of new technology with the “soft skills” that truly make us human.
(Viking, May 21, 2019)